Wednesday, April 11, 2012

April 3rd Arlington, TX Tornado

Not only did my hard drive crash AGAIN a couple of weeks ago, I've been very busy helping out at the Office of Emergency Management as the result of the tornado in SW Arlington on 4/3. Two supercells developed exceedingly fast in Johnson County. Keith Wells of the Fort Worth/Tarrant County Joint EOC related later that one sweep the cloud tops were at 8,400 and the next they were over 15,000. Since that happened just south of Arlington/Fort Worth there was little advance warning time. I was watching the radar as a line of storms slowly moved in from the west. Suddenly 2 small "rain" areas popped up ahead of the line and exploded into separate supercells. I'd already called and given the EOC a heads up, in case they weren't already watching. I called back an amazingly few minutes later as funnels were already dropping just south of us. I asked if they wanted me at the EOC to handle the radios, "let me think." 3 minutes later I got the call back: YES!  ASIDE: Emergency Managers, EM Coordinators, and others were in San Antonio at an Emergency Manager Conference at the time. I don't know if it was my call to Gerry that something serious was about to pop that did it, or if others were already watching the weather reports that went from possibility of large hail to tornadoes on the ground in less than 15 minutes, but they immediately suspended the conference and set up a State Command Center on the floor of the Convention Center and handled their duties from that location. I was sitting at the intersection next to the OEM location when the sirens went off. My Dad intended to drive my car home to the garage he'd cleaned out (because of predicted large hail), but I told him FORGET THE CAR, YOU'RE COMING UP WITH ME!  (As I'm looking up to make sure something wasn't about to drop on top of us.) Very interesting experience. No time to be frightened, even when a spotter reported the circulation was right on top of our location. I was told a couple of days later that someone took a photo of a funnel only 1/4 mile from our location. If I had simply walked 50 feet into the lunchroom, I could have seen both the Arlington and Lancaster tornadoes live and in person. As I entered the EOC, Fire and Police and other City personnel were pouring into it. By the time the immediate danger was over, it was crammed full with organized chaos. Needing to stay out of the way and my RACES net control for the EOC over, I left around 5:45pm. Because I sit in a windowless office with a monitor way above my head tuned into WeatherTap and was otherwise focused on monitoring RACES traffic and reporting emergency events to staff, I was unaware there had been a tornado in Lancaster at the same time. I've only seen bits and pieces of the "news" since. The whole area was EXTREMELY fortunate. No deaths, very few serious injuries, the Arlington tornado missed 2 elementary schools and a huge high school by as little as 250 feet. I've heard from many fire, police, church and radio acquaintances that their homes were only a matter of feet from homes that suffered major damage. One CERT volunteer whose home was barely missed and lost several trees, repeatedly thanked the police for their prompt response - they were already checking for injuries, surveying damage and moving debris out of the streets within a minute or 2 after it had passed. Had the tornado continued on it's original path and not dissipated, it would have hit my neighborhood a minute or 2 later. Instead, it moved from a NNE path, to due north, then briefly NW, then due W as it died. There has been an over-abundance of volunteers (leaving hundreds of good-hearted citizens disappointed that there was nothing they were needed to do.) Nor were donations originally accepted. Later those were referred to Mission Arlington once a distribution plan was set up. Clothing was not accepted. The areas hit by the Arlington tornado were almost exclusively upper middle income and higher, thus most, if not all, are covered by insurance and though FEMA has been in to assess the damages, the likelihood of getting funds from FEMA is small. (They only cover non-insured expenses and the thresh hold is based upon a dollar amount on a per capita basis for the entire city / country, etc.)

The EOC was activated when funnels dropped in northern Johnson County. The large monitors were already tuned to WeatherTap and local news channels (which had helicopters broadcasting live as events unfolded, as well as monitoring the RACES net until I could get there. Fire and police that weren't already on the scene immediately converged on the damaged areas along with search & rescure. Damage assessment drive-bys were in process shortly thereafter.

The next morning: As for me, with a dead hard drive and concerned about receiving emails activating CERT volunteers, I called about 11 to find out if I had missed it. Instead, I was asked to come in to recruit and schedule CERT volunteers for both the Emergency Operations Center and the Tornado Recovery Center located at the Fire Training Center not far from the damage path. Subsequently, I have been at the EOC pretty much from 7am to 11pm (or later) every night through Sunday. Went home at 8pm on Monday. Now I'm preparing documentation for the OEM/EOC to determine how many different people and how many hours they've put in. So far volunteers have served a total of 219 hours at the EOC. At some point I'll figure out how many of those were mine - a bunch, anyway. As Volunteer Coordinator, I ended up sticking around in case something came up - which it frequently did, as in it was almost 4pm when I was asked to staff additional volunteers starting at 7 am the next morning - got it done!  I don't have the total hours for volunteers working at the TRC yet, but it was operational from 8am to 8pm Thursday through Sunday and closed at 6pm this Monday, with 2 to 4 volunteers per 4 hours shift.

I've been volunteering at the EOC since early 2006. This is the first time the EOC has been activated for a city emergency in that time. We called everyone on the phone lists, and I tried to schedule as many trained CERT volunteers as I possibly could as this is what we have been trained and ready for. It wasn't perfect, but for the first time it went remarkably well, and I can only thank those early volunteers who spent hours on the phone contacting other potential volunteers on behalf of the EOC while I had other organizational responsibilities and acted as liason - as well as making a lot of phone calls myself. Kudos to the whole CERT organization for stepping up when the time came. Kudos to the Arlington OEM/EOC staff, Fire, Police and other public and private agencies who quickly activated plans previously made and made on the spot changes and revisions as necessary. Great job everyone! Thank you!!!

Abbreviation Key

AARC - Arlington Amateur Radio Club
- Amateur Radio Emergency Service
- Community Emergency Response Team
EMST - Emergency Management Support Team
- Emergency Operations Center - part of the OEM
FEMA - Federal Emergency Management Agency
- National Weather Service
NWS FWD - National Weather Service - Fort Worth/Dallas
OEM - Office of Emergency Management
- Public Service Event - ARES Net
RACES - Radio Amateur Civil Emergency Services
- TExas Severe Storm Associaton